Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Birder's : A Subculture?

Before you start, it helps if you imagine this being read by David Attenborough, it will help keep you awake. That, and coffee. If you don't have coffee yet, then this would be the time to go get one!

***Note (2018 Update)*** this paper is not meant to be divisive in any way. The classifications used and their definitions are hardly set in stone. Birding means different things for different people and it's the enjoyment that you get from the activity that is the most important thing!


Humankind has a long established affinity to those flying, feather-covered animals, known as birds. There is actually only one characteristic needed to qualify an animal as a bird, and that is the presence of feathers. However, where you find feathers you will indelibly find a host of other characteristics—hollow bones, lack of teeth etc.

Curiously though, these defining characteristics are seldom mentioned in a discussion pertaining to why people “enjoy” birds. Roger Tory Peterson, inventor of the modern field guide—and perhaps the most celebrated birdwatcher of all time, refers to flight as the main reason for man’s attraction to birds. Therefore, it is not the characteristics themselves, but the product of their summation, which is important. It is true that the earliest designs for aircraft were derived from watching birds. However, it is not the act of flying itself that draws our attention, but rather what flight symbolizes—freedom.

Birds of prey, and Bald Eagles in particular, are often felt to symbolize strength and courage and other important human values, but especially freedom. Based upon this, it should be no coincidence that the United States, a country that purports to hold personal freedom above all else, selected a Bald Eagle as their national symbol. Listed among the other most popular reasons humans enjoy birds are their colourful appearance, and their beautiful voices.

 Birds appear in a rainbow of colours, with an almost endless number of combinations. Similarly, birds are renowned for their amazing vocal ability—they reside above all other animals in this category. However, many birds are not colourful, some have songs which consist of little more than a single chirp, and some, simply cannot, or chose not to fly, yet by their definition as a bird, they are a subject for human admiration—why? Throughout the rest of the paper I will attempt to address this question. In doing so, I will first provide a brief history of the activity of birdwatching, briefly exploring its scientific origins, and later showing that it gained momentum as a non-violent substitute for hunting. I will then proceed to split the bird watching world into a number of separate groups, highlighting the distinguishing features and motives of each group. The remainder of the paper will focus upon a single group: birders, who can be segregated from the other groups based upon they’re superior levels of knowledge, and commitment. I will argue that birders and are different enough from the other groups of bird enthusiasts, and society in general, that they constitute their own distinctive subculture. I will conclude with a brief summary, and suggested areas for further study

The History of Birdwatching

 Henry David Thoreau was one of the greatest naturalists of the Nineteenth Century. In 1853 he remarked that, “it might be better to carry a spy- glass in order to watch shy birds such as Hawks and Ducks. In some respects, me thinks, it would be better than a gun”. — And so it began. Humans have been studying birds since, and probably before the time of Pliny and Aristotle. One of the first truly great bird scientists was Dr. William Turner. He was referred to an the “father of Botany and is said to be the first ornithologist (one who partakes in the scientific study of birds) of the modern scientific spirit. In 1544 he published “Turner on Birds: A Short and Succinct History of the Principle Birds Studied by Pliny and Aristotle”. In this book he compared his personal studies with those of Pliny and Aristotle. The book was a remarkable achievement for its time and served as an impetus for further study.

Following in his footsteps were the likes of John James Audubon, Alexander Wilson, and the afore mentioned, Henry Thoreau. These men made extraordinary accomplishments in the field of ornithology, particularly in the area of classification. During this early era, spanning approximately 1600- 1900, much emphasis was placed upon shooting birds for the purposes of careful study, and classification. In fact, there were really only two principle reasons for one’s interest in birds prior to the twentieth century: sport and science. Either way, both pursuits resulted in the death of many birds. Before the advent of high quality, portable optics, it was necessary to shoot a bird in order to study it. Over time, advancements in optical technology, and the field study of birds, meant few or no birds had to be killed to insure identification.

The use of binoculars and spotting scopes allow the observer to get close looks at the bird, while maintaining a reasonable distance. The work of Roger Tory Peterson was invaluable in this vein— he is often hailed as the father of the modern field guide. He pioneered a system of bird identification based upon readily noticeable, species specific characteristics, which could be seen relatively easily using binoculars. In his guides he provided colour illustrations of the birds with arrows pointing to the marks necessary for their identification. He was also emphasized the use of voice as a means of differentiating between similar species.

The importance of optical advances (during the twentieth century) to birding cannot be overstated. This allowed for a much greater appreciation of birds, and was part of greater civilizing process that emerged following the feudal era. In the modern world of Ornithology, the shooting of a bird to procure a specimen—even if it is the only definitive means of ensuring an identification, is greatly frowned upon, and is illegal in most of the world. It remains however, perfectly legal to shoot many species of birds for sport, but that is a topic I will discuss in the following paragraph.

Sociological Discussion

 I will take this opportunity to thoroughly ground my study of birdwatching, within the realm of sociological study, by incorporating the work of Norbert Elias. Widely regarded as one of the greatest sociologists of the twentieth century, Elias’ most famous work is perhaps “ The Civilizing Process”. He argued that there was an observable development that occurred in Europe, between feudal times, and the twentieth century. This process included such things as the refinement of manners, and social standards. People began to exercise greater control over their feelings and behaviour, particularly with respect to physical functions such as, eating, sleeping, and defecation.

One aspect of this process was the normative regulation of violence and aggression. People also exhibited a reduced propensity for gaining pleasure from seeing, or partaking in violent acts. Birdwatching therefore, came to serve as a replacement for the more violent act of hunting. In his article, “ Birdwatching, Sport, and the Civilizing Process” Kenneth Sheard argues that birdwatching is an activity of the mimetic type. Mimetic is a word borrowed from Elias, who used the word to describe the appeal of leisure activities. More specifically, it refers to leisure activities that elicit strong feelings and emotional response in those taking-part in them.

Mimetic leisure activities allow participants to experience excitement resembling that produced in real life- situations, but without the associated risks and dangers. An obvious example of a mimetic activity is paintball. In essence, paintball is simulated warfare. It allows its participants to experience the intense feelings of battle, without the threat of being maimed or killed, because live rounds, are replaced by relatively harmless paint balls.

A less obvious example of a mimetic activity is birdwatching. Just as paintball removes killing from warfare, birdwatching removes killing from hunting. While birdwatching a person can experience the thrill of the hunt, minus the kill. Birds are vagile animals, and it is often extremely difficult to get quality views of birds, which are needed for proper identification. Over time, the increased availability of quality cameras and the growing popularity of bird photography have enabled a type of simulated kill. The bird photograph can be seen as the civilized equivalent to the rack of Moose antlers. However, as mentioned earlier, different people have different motives for watching birds. In the following section I will segregate bird enthusiasts into different groups, which will more clearly demonstrate the mimetic activities involved in the pursuit of birds.

The Classifications

 Past writers on the subject have divided the birdwatching world into as many as 8 sub-groups: scientist, ornithologist, bird-watcher, birdwatcher, birder, twitcher, dude, and robin stroker. However, for the purposes of this paper I will combine the categories of scientist and ornithologist because they are essentially one in the same. I will also include the bird-watchers and robin strokers in the category of birdwatcher, leaving five groups, ornithologist, birdwatcher, dude, birder and twitcher. These five groups are discernable, based upon differences in knowledge, motivation, and commitment.

(2018 update) A person can be part of multiple groups, don't try too hard to pigeonhole yourself into a single category!


 Firstly, we have the ornithologist. Most ornithologists will hold a Ph.D. in biology, conservation or some related field. They are extremely knowledgeable but they tend to have a narrow window of interest, perhaps concentrating on one particular group of birds, or even just a single species. They often have an interest in the morphology or internal working of birds, something seldom found in the other groups. They spend much of their time analyzing data collected in the field to be published in scholarly journals. Studying birds is their passion and their livelihood therefore their level of commitment is extremely high. If the ornithologist is the most scientific of all bird enthusiasts then the birdwatcher is the least scientific.


Birdwatcher is a very broad term, which many people outside the birding world use to describe anyone with any interest in birds whatsoever. However I will use the term birdwatcher to describe those people who at best, have only a passive interest in birds, and in fact, passivity is the defining feature of this group. The term birdwatcher “ sounds so passive and voyeuristic that you’d probably be far more disinclined to take it up”. Birdwatchers tend to have a limited knowledge, which usually includes only the birds that visit their backyard bird feeders, or the birds they see on various other nature outings; birdwatchers rarely plan outings based solely upon the presence of birds. As well, many don’t even employ the use of binoculars, which is mainly, what keeps them from gaining knowledge.

Stephen Kellert randomly interviewed 2455 random U.S. citizens in order to gauge opinions concerning knowledge and levels of commitment among birdwatchers. Only 30 percent of those who said they birdwatched had reported using binoculars, and just 4 percent reported using a field guide. Only 0.7 percent indicated they could identify between 61- 100 species and just 0.5 percent more than 100 species. These statistics should not be surprising as most birdwatchers (non-committed birdwatchers, I refer to committed birdwatchers as birders) watch birds because of their aesthetic appeal, i.e. birds are pretty to see, 58 percent, while 0 percent listed the desire to identify birds, as the reason for their interest. So, birdwatchers have a passive interest in birds, and are interested in watching birds, mainly because they find birds aesthetically appealing. If birdwatchers are defined by their passivity, then the third grouping known as dudes, are defined by their ignorance.


 A dude is a person who claims to have a vast knowledge of birds, while realistically they know very little. Dude, in this context, is a term that implies much scorn and derision. Cocker aptly describes a dude as “ the most unwelcome character in any rigid hierarchy – the person with pretensions above his station…his central feature is ignorance…his perceived deficiency is expertise”. A dude is a person who “calls” (identifies) birds indiscriminately, prematurely, and above all else, incorrectly, on the majority of occasions. In some ways they are the bane of many birders and especially twitchers, the final two groups I will discuss.

(2018 update) Basically a 'dude' is that guy (could be a women, but usually a man) who thinks they know everything. They find lots of rarities but no one can ever seem to relocate the rarities they supposedly find. The dude is an irritant for all other birders and birdwatchers because they serve to erode the foundation of credibility upon which birding is built.

 The remainder of the paper will focus upon the two most interesting segments of the birdwatching world, birders and twitchers. To simplify things I will begin by defining the birder in relation to the birdwatcher, and then the twitcher in relation to the birder. A birder is seriously involved in studying, identifying, and collecting birds, but while he or she goes watching birds, he or she doesn’t go birdwatching – they go birding. Birding implies a much greater degree of conviction and expertise. I mentioned earlier, that in a study of American people who claimed to be birdwatchers only 0.5 percent could identify more than 100 species. A very good birder could very likely identify greater than 500 species without the aid of a field guide, and even an average birder can easily identify well over 100 species.

The Birder

 Birders do not wait for the birds to come to them; they actively seek out and find birds. This is exemplified in the activity of ‘alder bashing’. A non-birder could misconceive ‘alder bashing’ as a malicious act carried out by people who have a deep-seated hatred for alder trees. In actuality, it is a term coined by birders, which describes the act of looking for birds amidst a thick tangle of alder bushes. There is actually very little bashing at all, since that would scare the birds away. It mostly consists of wading into a 6-8 ft high stand of alders squatting low to the ground and ‘pishing.’

This is another curious word from the birders lexicon. Pishing is kind of difficult to describe in print. It’s a technique for getting hidden birds to come out of the underbrush by piquing their curiosity. Basically, pishing is just making a loud (as loud as you can) shhhhhhh sound. However, everyone does it a little differently. Interrupting the sound as in pshhh-pshhh-etc is one way to vary the sound and accounts for the name. Some birders manage to get a little humming or other musical tone into their pish. You can also vary the shape of your mouth to get a sort of shhwshhwshh effect (see appendix 1J & K).

 Birders also display a much larger degree of commitment and plan activities solely for the purpose of finding and identifying birds. Birders do watch birds, however their first thought, and immediate goal when encountering a new bird, is towards identification. After the bird’s identity has been confirmed one can then “watch” the bird, i.e. appreciate the bird’s beauty, behaviour etc. So therefore, I would argue that the primary motivation, the raison d’ĂȘtre for the birder, is identification. Identification is critical to birding because it is through identification that birds are collected. I will elaborate on this means of collecting birds through identification in a later section.

So one may ask, why is identification so important to birding, and not as important to birdwatching ? The answer is, the list. Birders keep lists of the birds they see. There are day lists, season lists, year lists, provincial lists, country lists, and the all-important life list—all are a source of competition, which is a central feature among birders—but absolutely crucial to twitchers. Whom I will discuss next!

The Twitcher

 Quite simply, twitching is the pursuit of rare birds. One who pursues rare birds is therefore by definition, a twitcher. There is only clinal variation between birders and twitchers because the pursuit of rare birds, is central to both groups. Cocker echoes this in his description of twitching when he states, “ It would be wrong to suggest that absolutely everybody does it, but I would like to meet the keen birder who claims never to have done so. We all like to see rarities. As in any other activity which involves collecting it’s a central part of the pursuit”.

Twitchers, I would argue are a form of debased birder. The most dedicated twitchers gain very little pleasure from common birds, and are interested only in adding birds to their list. Over time as their lists grow it becomes increasingly harder to add new birds, and the twitcher can become very disheartened, and therefore derives little pleasure from the pursuit. As well, twitchers themselves spend very little time in the field finding rare birds. In order to find a rare bird it often takes hours of searching amongst common birds. Since twitchers are interested only in birds they have not yet seen, they aren’t inclined to spend hours looking common birds at the off chance of finding a rarity, they more often are seen looking for rare birds that have been reported by others.

However, when they get word of a rare bird their behaviour borders on manic—it is not uncommon for such people to literally twitch or shake with anticipation, hence the name twitcher. Hard-core twitchers make up a very small percentage of any birding community, and can be seen as a radical group of birders who equate birds with nothing other than another tick on their list. I will explore the activity of twitching further in the following section, because as stated above it is a central feature of the birding culture.

Birders as a Subculture

 Birders do form a distinctive subculture. The “Subcultures Reader” defines subcultures as, “social groups organized around shared interests and practices”. Birders, not only exhibit shared interests and practices, they aspire to achieve goals that have no meaning outside of their sub-cultural group—birders will sacrifice the normative goals of the larger society to achieve the normative goals ascribed to their subculture. It is on this basis, that I will seek to define the birding subculture. I will also provide the basis for one’s inclusion or exclusion from the birding subculture. However, before I explain exactly what the birding subculture is, I should first say something about how it arose as resistance to the routinization of birdwatching.

 After WWII ( and even a little before) birdwatching really took off as a leisure activity. Ever-increasing numbers of birders led to the formation of bird societies such as The British Trust for Ornithology in Britain, and the Audubon Society in the United States. As numbers of birdwatchers increased, limits were placed upon their activities to insure the integrity of the habitats they visited in search of birds. Members of birdwatching groups such as those listed above could receive permits to visit reservoirs, and other areas where large numbers of birds congregated. Structures such as blinds (a small hut-like structure with a window) were constructed to allow the observer to get close to the birds without causing too much disturbance.

Due to these types of constraints birders soon came to congregate in masses much like the birds they were looking for. The growing numbers of more casual birdwatchers increasingly constrained the birders to differentiate themselves from the less committed not only in name, but in the type of birding they found attractive. These birders came to liken the activity of visiting these popular birdwatching sites to visiting a zoo.

The List

 On way birders came to distinguish themselves from the less committed birdwatchers was through listing i.e. identifying all the birds which exist in a given area and placing them on a list. This could only be accomplished by spending more time birding in less popular areas where rare birds are likely to be found. While most birdwatchers were visiting the popular areas pioneering birders set off in search of what are now known as vagrant traps. A vagrant trap is an area of land where migrating birds congregate—more importantly an area where rare migrant birds, which have been blown off course, are found. These vagrant traps are usually coastal areas since exhausted birds will seek cover in the first land they see.

In Newfoundland excellent migrant traps are found at Cape Spear, Cape Race, Renews, Ferryland, Ramea, Codroy Valley and others, see map in Appendix 2. Some of these coastal areas are typical Newfoundland coastal habitats—a combination of low shrubs and grassy areas, with rugged rocky coastline. Very few birds breed in these inhospitable environments, but their juxtaposition to the sea makes them a point of landfall for “off-course” birds. These vagrant traps come to have special meaning for the birder that is not recognized by those outside of the birding culture.

For example, every year birders flock to the string of Islands off of Alaska, known as the Aleutians. They do this because this is the closest a human can get to Asia while standing in North America. Hence it’s the best place to find Asian vagrants during migration. The top twitchers in North America spend thousands of dollars each year to visit these islands with the hopes of finding rare Asian strays to add to their North American lists. These people would rather, visit the Aleutians with hope of seeing some stray Asian birds to add to their North American list, than visit Asia, where they would be guaranteed to see many birds of many species. This is testament to the lure of the list!

 So how important are these rare birds to a birders list? Newfoundland’s bird list for example contains approximately 370 species, (2018 update, the Newfoundland list is now at 404 species) more than half the list is comprised of rarities found in coastal environments such as those listed above. It is not enough to visit these areas in hopes of finding rare birds. One must have knowledge of bird migration, and weather patterns, to determine when rare birds are likely to be found. After this much has been accomplished one must then have the ability to identify the birds they see.

Based upon information such as that mentioned above, birders have an idea of what to expect in the way of rarities. For example it is known that the best time to see vagrants from the southeastern U.S. in Newfoundland is during the hurricane season. The hurricane season reaches its peak in September, remarkably coinciding with the peak of bird migration. For that reason, most rare birds found in Newfoundland are found during September and October-- Newfoundland birders know this, birdwatchers don’t. Birdwatchers aren’t concerned with listing, or finding vagrants; therefore they don’t need the knowledge base that is required of a good birder.

 So the birding subculture did arise as a means of resistance—not to the dominant culture, as is usually the case, but as a reaction to the routinization of the activity they loved. This created the birding subculture, as it is known today. All birders have certain things in common which differentiate them from the other groups of bird enthusiasts, and the rest of society. All birders are interested in finding and identifying birds, especially rare birds. They do this through the practice of birding, i.e. the act of seeking out birds to be identified and listed. This, in part, summarizes what it is to be a birder—the lure of the list.

The list is at the heart of the birding culture. This is where the nexus between birder and twitcher becomes most evident. A 'birder' is actively involved in studying, identifying and collecting birds on his/her list. Most active 'birders' will identify themselves as such, yet to a layman they might be referred to as 'twitchers'. The dialect of a 'birder' is almost one of hatred towards being referred to as a 'twitcher', yet in many instances these two titles are interchangeable. If there is anything that can distinguish a 'twitcher' from a 'birder', then it is the philosophy of a 'twitcher'. For many birders the major thrill is to actually find a new or rare bird for themselves, the twitcher is more frequently to be found in pursuit of other people’s birds.

 Either way the goal of just about every birder is too find and identify as many birds as possible in their province, country, etc. This can have serious implications for one’s work and family life. In this modern era of birding, information moves at light speed. When rare birds are found the word gets out quick. Just about every country, state and province in the world have RBA’s .i.e. RARE BIRD ALERT. These usually come in the form of Internet groups, pager systems, or telephone recordings (2018 update- this was before the time of cell phones and texting!) As mentioned previously, birds are vagile creatures and where rare birds are concerned, time is of the utmost importance, birds don’t wait to be seen by birders!

The Sacrifice for The List!

 Upon being informed of a rare bird a birders first thought is, ‘ when and how can I get there’. If this means skipping work, a date with your girlfriend or boyfriend, or picking your wife/husband up at work, then so be it. As Cocker states, “ the problematic relationship for a birder isn’t usually to the boss, but to your spouse. Some keen birders never marry, probably for that reason.” Some birders are willing to risk their marriages and careers to twitch rare birds. In a study of British Birders, Richard Bosner questioned birders about their twitching habits, and found that even within this category of birdwatching, it is evident that there are some divisions, based on self-desire or competitive listing.

There are thousands of birders, but out of those there's probably less than a hundred who are near on obsessive. Birding and especially twitching requires a much higher degree of dedication than many other leisure activities and Bosners’ research findings show the dedication of individuals to the cause. Many birders frame their whole life around the pursuit, including their place of work, habitude and only going on holiday at certain times of year when new species of bird are unlikely to be found. After interviewing 50 of Britain’s top birders he found that 70% listed work as their premiere sacrifice to birding, 16% cited marriage/partner sacrifices, 16 % said they made a variety of other sacrifices to go birding. This mentality can be provided by the notion that 'a lot of the time an everyday, normal life would be ideal but once you’ve got hooked and keep going for birds, it’s very difficult to stop'. This type of behavior may seem obsessive to non-birders, but it is entirely logical to birders, but what drives this obsession?

Bitten by "The Birding bug"

 A common reference made by many birders is, “I’ve been bitten by the birding bug”. This is a reference to the obsessive aspects of birding, which motivates birders to travel hundreds of kilometers or more, at a moments notice to twitch a rare bird (see appendix 1a- h). Birders do this because internal competition is the force that drives the birding culture, and credibility is the glue that binds its members. But what is the source of this competition and how does one measure a birders credibility within the birding culture?

 Once again we must turn to the list. All birders keep lists. Listing is not only a way for the individual to keep track of the birds they’ve seen, it also acts as a measuring stick to show a birder how they measure up against the best birders in their area. Every birder strives to be the best birder they can—one does this by amassing a large list, while simultaneously maintaining, or gaining credibility.

Advances in technology have taken much of the skill out of birding. Now all a birder really needs to amass a large list, is money and free time. A person can sit home and call the RBA hotline to check on where the rare birds are—go to the location, find the bird, and tick, another bird on the list. This of course, is assuming they have no prior commitments, and can afford to drive or fly to the bird’s location. These are the people I have referred to as twitchers. These birders have very little credibility because they are seen to lack skill and conviction, since they never find and identify any rare birds themselves.

Birding and Credibility

“The act of independent discovery (of a rarity) has been elevated almost to the status of a principle, which often forms the basis of opposition to twitching”. Remember identification skills are sacred in the birding culture, and if one truly wants to establish credibility within the birding culture they must above all else, prove their identification skills. The fastest way to do this is by birding with a number of good birders in your area. However that is easier said than done, since members of a local birding community don’t readily accept newcomers, who haven’t proven themselves. So how does one prove they are worthy of inclusion in the birding culture?

The answer, find a rarity—but not just any rarity, a mega- rarity. There are different levels of rarities. For example, in Newfoundland birds seen less than annually usually constitute a rarity. A mega would be a first record, or a bird that hasn’t been seen in many years. This happened a couple of years ago when a Corn Crake was found at Cape Race, Newfoundland (see appendix 1G, A Mythical Mega Falls). A mega-rarity is a bird of almost mythic status. It could be a bird that is high up on a birder’s wish list, or a bird no one thinks could ever turn up in a given area. However, finding rarities is a double-edged sword. If your rarities are re-found, and confirmed by other birders, your in the clear. As Cocker states “ it’s best to let others know (about the rarity) quickly so they can share in the experience. Most people, in fact, want to proclaim the discovery to the world as loudly as possible because the real buzz is gathering the torrent of acclaim which pours your way”. So if all one needs to gain credibility in the birding culture is the discovery of a few rarities, what’s to stop one from just falsely reporting birds?

Nothing and everything. There’s nothing to stop someone from lying about the birds they see. But if you do report birds that don’t exist, you run the risk of losing everything that it means to belong to the birding subculture. That paradox is at the very core of the birding culture. If for example over the course of a year a birder reports 10 rare birds (a high number), if less than 8 are re-found, other birders would probably start to get a little suspicious. The true measure of a birder's credibility is the average of rare birds reported, to rare birds accepted. Non-birders frequently assume that a birders rank is measured by the length of their list, however “ even top birders acknowledge that the number of species seen is secondary, if not immaterial, to your reputation.”

Credibility is not something that can be gained quickly. One gains acceptance to the birding subculture by proving themselves over and over again, through the finding and documentation of ‘twitchable’ rarities, i.e. rare birds that are re-found by other birders. Birders who have gained a reputation of reporting ‘suspicious birds’ are labeled as stringers. Once a birder's reputation is tarnished in this manner, they are effectively excluded from the birding culture. Regardless of how talented a birder is, if their reports can’t be trusted, they will never be accepted into the birding subculture.

Some stringers have resorted to photographing hand-carved, bird replicas, of mega-rarities in an attempt to regain their credibility. However, such records are usually easily detectable, since the birds are obviously never re-found and confirmed. As well, there is already an aura of suspicion surrounding stringers, so every report made by such individuals are met with the harshest scrutiny, which usually results to the finding of flaws in the replica or the photograph. Such an act is the equivalent of a capital offense in the birding culture, and it is not uncommon for shamed stringers to leave the province or country, with the hopes of gaining acceptance in another sector of the birding culture.

 My intention in writing this paper was to shed some light on the complexities of the birdwatching world, specifically the group I defined as birders. I have shown that birdwatching was the product of the civilizing process that took place in Europe between the feudal era and the twentieth century. It was also shown that the subculture of birding grew out of resistance to the routinization of birdwatching, spawning a type of ‘super-birdwatcher’—the birder.

In relation to the other groups defined, birders have highest combination of knowledge, commitment, and motivation. I have argued that birders constitute a recognizable subculture based upon shared interests, practises, and goals, which differentiate them from all other groups of bird enthusiasts, and the rest of society in general. The subculture of birding is driven by internal competition where its members strive to attain a high list of birds seen, while simultaneously striving to attain a high level of credibility. Many non-birders believe that trust forms the foundation upon which the birding subculture stands. To an extent this may be true, but as I have shown trust is closely tied to the more complex concept of credibility.

Credibility is the glue that binds the birding subculture, without it there would be no way to monitor the internal competition, which motivates its members. To remove credibility would undermine the hierarchy of the birding subculture, leaving birders with nothing to strive for, and no way of comparing themselves to other birders. Therefore the subculture of birding is a hierarchical one, driven by internal competition and, bound by the credibility of its members.

 There has been a relative paucity of work done in relation to the birding culture. In fact I could find no previous work which treated birders as a separate subculture, which in my opinion it clearly is. For that reason I think a more extensive treatment of birding in this fashion is needed. As well, the majority of birders are middle-aged white males (2018 update, things have changed in the last 20 years, there are many more female birders now), most of which, have post-secondary education. This is arguably the most dominant sector of any community. It would be useful to try to account for the lack of female ( now it would be interesting to account for the growth of the population of female birders in the last 20 years!) and minority group representation within the birding subculture.

Also, birding is one of the fastest growing leisure activities in the world. It will be interesting to see what implications, if any, this will have for the birding culture. The rise in popularity, and subsequent routinization of birdwatching following WWII led to the creation of birding. Will the popularization of birding result in its routinization—will it evolve into something new? These are questions that await answers. However, they are proof that there is still much to learn about the social and cultural aspects of birding.

Other articles you might like!

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Fatbirder's Top 1000 Birding Websites


  1. Great read, i think the advancement of digital photography had made getting into birding a lot easier (kills off the clique of advanced birders discounting newbies finds if they have a picture ) and the social media (Facebook groups especially) have made learning nd identification of birds more accessible to the many "birdwatchers" to advance their skills to "Birder" status.

    1. I fully agree, Facebook and eBird as well as huge additions and major game changers for birding. I remember when I first started birding I had to spend hours in my University library researching journal articles for records or various species. I compiled my own charts that showed which vagrants occurred at which seasons in Newfoundland and how that compared to Atlantic Canada and the NE US. Now, what too me months to assemble is available in minutes in a few mouse clicks!

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